When Eryka Perry was studying culinary arts and business management at Culinard, she and her fellow classmates were charged with developing a business plan for a cooking-related enterprise. Whenever Eryka shared her idea, people would say, “So you want to be a caterer,” to which she would emphatically reply, “No! Not just catering!” When she officially launched her business in 2012, she already had the perfect name — Not Just Catering. Eryka lives up to her business’ moniker by using her background in science and medicine and partnering with fitness professionals to provide personal chef services and health coaching. And she is not just a caterer — she’s also executive chef at Michael’s Restaurant in Aloft hotel in Homewood and a certified health coach who’s on a mission to promote healthy lifestyles and bring families back to the table. Learn why “food is life” from today’s FACE of Birmingham, Eryka Perry!
Explain why your company is “Not Just Catering.”
I really believe that food is life. It’s art. It’s love. It’s all the things, and I love being able to teach people that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t just mean eating lettuce. A healthy lifestyle means celebrating with your friends. A healthy lifestyle means knowing what food does in your body, making informed choices. It really is life in a box. If you’re willing to add the right ingredients, you can literally have whatever you want. There are no limitations. Food perfectly displays that. We teach that. We bring families back to the table. We don’t just cater, we create happy, healthy people.
How do you go about doing that?
We do private events for two to 40 people. That gives us the space to have maximum creativity. We do cooking demonstrations and health expos. We do lunch-and-learns at offices and schools. We take people outside of the box, one step at a time.
What are some things you do to take people “outside the box” with food?
We might serve spicy ice cream. You think ice cream is not supposed to be hot, but we make chipotle habanero ice cream, because why not?!
At Michael’s we do a wine dinner series, and for our Oregon theme, I knew I wanted biscuits and gravy. But I also wanted lamb, and if you have lamb, you have to have bleu cheese and mint. So I did homemade buttermilk biscuits with bleu cheese gravy with red-wine-cherry-mint jam and lamb.
How have you been partnering with fitness professionals?
Most people fail their fitness journey because of diet. They go work out, but then they don’t know what to eat when they’re done. Or you don’t prepare for it, so now you’ve worked out and you’re famished and you say, “I’ll just grab some McDonald’s.” We partner in that space to provide balance. We offer a personal chef service, where we do the menu planning, grocery shopping, prepare the meals and leave it there. You come home and just grab it, heat it and eat it. The goal is to make healthy eating just as convenient as grabbing fast food.
How does being executive chef at Michael’s Restaurant fit into your overall mission?
I’ve been executive chef at Michael’s since my family took over ownership on March 18, 2016. When your family owns the place it is more magical on some ends and more stressful on other ends.
The magic is really being able to cross-brand my company and the restaurant. Sometimes Not Just Catering gets to take over Michael’s. And if I have a specialty dessert at the restaurant, I’ll feature it on the Not Just Catering side as well. Those are definitely the benefits of being able to cross-brand and be in both of the spaces.
The stressful part would be wearing all the hats. But that’s a benefit, too, because I really get to be involved in all aspects, from recipe development and menu development to hiring and training and being able to serve.
How did you get into cooking?
When I was 6 years old, I made my mom breakfast in bed. It wasn’t necessarily amazing, but she was so happy. I think that’s the moment that I realized I really liked that feeling of “Look what I did” and “Look how excited you are.” I then opened what I termed Bubba’s Diner in my parent’s kitchen. I would go around with a notepad. I would write the day’s specials on the top, which was usually a bologna sandwich or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich served with yogurt or fruit, and I would walk around to my friends in the neighborhood taking orders. Then I would go and get everyone lunch. That was my childhood.
I did my first actual big party at 14 for my mom’s 40th birthday. I turned our downstairs den into a cocktail lounge. I had non-alcoholic cocktails and mini quiche, and we did a full 4-course meal upstairs. I cooked all of it. We had a mixed green salad, and I made a homemade raspberry vinaigrette. I did steak and stilton parcels with lemon glazed carrots and scalloped potatoes. The dessert was little fruit tartlets. I made pie crust. I hired servers, and everybody had uniforms. I bought everybody khaki skirts and white tops.
You say food is art, but you see a connection between food and science, too.
Most of my life has been split between food and medicine, food and science. I started doing internships in a hospital at 10. Being a doctor was the mission. That’s what you do for a living; the cooking part is the fun. Just as I was completing my biology degree and studying for the MCAT, I decided that instead of doing an MCAT prep course for the summer, I would take a culinary short course at Culinard. I signed up for one of those but they mixed up my paperwork and enrolled me in their degree program. And I stayed.
The more I learned about how food works in the body, the more I started to have a lot of angst with modern medicine, because I understand how food works better. My goal is to get a PhD in nutrition.
You recently participated in Create Birmingham’s business development program CO.STARTERS. How did this help you grow Not Just Catering?
CO.STARTERS did a couple things for me. One, it showed that there are other people in the world like me. Starting and building businesses and brands is a hidden, unique struggle. Everybody has the same questions. That cohort, being around like-minded people week after week was amazing for me.
I definitely thought I was much more of a mess than I was when I went in. Business is very much like a kid. You have the ideas, you’re pregnant, you’re carrying it around. Then you birth it, and you’re doing all the things. You don’t sleep. My “kid” is in kindergarten now and CO.STARTERS was like the classroom orientation saying, “Yeah, it’s OK to let baby go to school. She’s OK. She’ll make it. You can go on vacation. You’ll still make money. Business will still grow. Don’t leave too long, though. Pick her up at 2 o’clock!”
What do you like to do when you’re not cooking?
I am almost always reading something, typically two books at a time. I am currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry. I usually hang out in Puerto Rico once a year. And I love music.
What’s the best advice you have to give?
Create better yesterdays. Tomorrow never comes. Most people focus on tomorrow. I evaluate my days every morning. Today will always become yesterday. How can I do better today? Today’s goal is to do better than I did yesterday.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Notebooks. Music. And I am absolutely terrified of losing my taste buds. I want to insure them like Tina Turner did her legs.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Eryka.